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Dr. Flute Snyder: 'Repairing engines, restoring confidence'

It was at least 12 years ago that I ripped the starter-rope out of my second-hand Jonsered chainsaw and resolved that it would cost me $20 and a week of downtime until Brett, at then Mueller's True Value repair shop, would get it fixed.

But Flute Snyder had me out of there in 15 minutes and in the process, taught me to do it myself.

That chance encounter marked the beginning what was to become a peculiar relationship with a fascinating gentleman.

Flute died last Wednesday -- at his own hand -- privately ending his life in what I expect he believed was a logical, necessary act. To some of us who knew him, it was a terribly sad way for such an amazing gentleman to leave the stage.

Dr. Robert Snyder, (aka "The Mower Doctor"), was once a professor of music at colleges in Ohio and Kansas. The flute was his instrument of choice, but he was also a seasoned pipe organist, pianist and I'm certain, could play many other instruments. He also held undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics.

A few years ago, I began receiving a Flute-authored essay in my e-mail "IN" box each Friday morning. There was no particular theme but they were always extremely well-composed, thoughtful exposes about a wide variety of topics. Sometimes he'd use a contemporary anecdote as a springboard to recollect about people he'd known. Or he'd digress with a simplified explanation of some incredibly complex phenomena -- like solar flares, digital television or world hunger. No topic was taboo. One week he told the story of losing his eye as a child and the saga of how he was fitted with one made of glass. I don't know whether his wife, Ann, was given an opportunity for prior review each week. I suspect not as he'd sometimes discuss previous relationships or intimate topics that I'd have paid for dearly with my wife were I to share them semi-publicly.

I always tried to read them and more than once, mused that we should have recruited him as a local newspaper columnist because of his writing clarity and keen observations.

Flute was literally a genius -- a member of Mensa, the largest high intelligence quotient society in the world. To be eligible, would-be members must score at the 98th percentile on a standardized, supervised IQ test.

Wikipedia notes that Mensa's constitution lists three purposes: "to identify and to foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity; to encourage research into the nature, characteristics, and uses of intelligence; and to provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members".

In his own quiet way, Flute was a wonderful Mensa missionary.

I last saw him on a Sunday evening about three weeks ago. He stopped by our River Falls home to pass on an armload of New York Times 'Week in Review' and Sunday Business sections, which he knew I enjoyed, no matter how old. It was his way of recycling, and perhaps attempting to raise my feeble IQ a skooch.

As I followed him out the door to his truck that evening, his head was slightly cocked and as he turned to address me, he reached up to support his head with one hand. He told me the muscles in his neck were becoming weak, the long-term result of radiation therapy received years ago. Flute had suffered esophageal cancer, treatment for which had robbed him of his ability to eat normally and relegated him to a challenging life with a jejunostomy or "J" tube, through which he'd inject nutrition directly into his stomach.

He wasn't shy about sharing things he learned along the way. He wrote this letter to the editor in late 2009:

"As many of you know, I puree all my food before consuming it. I've discovered that when I use chicken for meat, I can rinse the blender jar with plain water. It comes clean. However, if I blend beef instead, I have to use soap and water to clean the fat out of the blender jar. It makes me wonder how the human body cleans the beef fat off the artery walls. Maybe it doesn't."

His recent physical deterioration was clearly troubling to him and must have made it difficult for him to back his trailer from my driveway that night. Because my own father was just hours from death that evening, I remember fleeting thoughts as to how Flute might be coping with his eventual mortality. Little did I know it loomed so soon.

But I never heard him complain about anything. He was always cheerful, positive and optimistic. He loved life and appeared to live it with passion.

When his wife worked for us in River Falls, he'd regularly show up around noon, smiling radiantly and usually sporting a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers, to take her to lunch. Sometimes he'd make the 18-mile round trip on his bicycle.

Flute once shared a copy of a column written about him in August 1984, for the "Country Journal," a Mother Earth News-style magazine. The writer, Bruce Guernsey, had brought his ailing chainsaw to Dr. Flute for healing, a decade before I experienced the same thing.

Here's a few excerpts:

"Mozart, I hear Mozart," I said to myself, opening the paint-flaked door, the rich full sound of a cello in the background a counterpoint to the grinding of metal, the whir of blades. Snyder, it turns out, is a music professor at the nearby university. He started "tuning" engines in his spare time, a few years back, because he needed the extra cash and because, I suspect, the sound of a well-tuned engine is music to his ears.

He's hardly a flute, I thought: he's a far stronger and more broad-shouldered man than that. A cello or bass, perhaps. Musicians are supposed to be ethereal, distant, but here was one in blue coveralls and worn boots, with grease on his hands..."

The writer went on to describe Snyder's gentle teaching method.

"I made my confession and laid my pain upon his workbench, trying to explain as best I could what I'd tried to do to fix the blessed thing. He listened -- actually listened, as if I were the mechanic, he the customer -- and I felt better for it. He restored my mechanical pride..."

Flute never talked down to mechanically-challenged people like me. He instead tried to help us by teaching a little something about how to prevent a repeat visit to his home-based Laurel Avenue shop.

He was one-of-a-kind.

An obituary for Dr. Snyder appears on page 4C in today's Hudson Star-Observer.